From The Vaults: The Monochrome Set Strange Boutique

Strange Boutique

Strange Boutique

This is a post by associate editor Blake Madden.

If you manage to sustain a working band for any period of time, you’ll sometimes meet people who claim you are obviously influenced by an artist or band that you’ve never heard of.

Occasionally, something strange and wondrous will come out of these exchanges: In researching that band or artist, you might find that you do enjoy them, and that they do become an influence after all. The circle miraculously completes itself: a once inaccurate statement becomes true over time, sparked on by its own initial inaccuracy.

This was how I was introduced to English post-punk band The Monochrome Set, my favorite previously-unheard-of influence.

Hits & B-Sides

Perhaps it’s fitting that the Monochrome Set sprang from a group called ‘The B-Sides’, as they would forever be a less commercial (and less heard) alternative to the superstar that group also produced.

Originally a 1976 art-school collaboration between friends Lester Square, Stuart Goddard, Andy Warren, and Indian-born Bid (real name Ganesh Seshadri), the band had only been together a few short months before Goddard left to begin a solo career. The stage name that Goddard chose? Adam Ant.

The three remaining members continued to rehearse together after Goddard’s departure, penning some of the earliest Monochrome Set songs. Guitarist Lester Square and Bassist Andy Warren joined Adam & The Ants soon thereafter, but Square quit the band in 1977, launching The Monochrome Set in earnest alongside Bid (who would become the lead singer and guitarist), drummer John Haney, and a revolving door of bassists.

The Monochrome Set (I Presume)

While Adam Ant became the wildly successful posterboy for glammed-out new wave, The Monochrome Set would spend the majority of their career in relative obscurity, dancing around the edges of genres they were never fully a part of or apart from.

They were too highbrow for punk, not serious enough for post-punk, and too gritty and abstract for new wave. They were an unnamable mass of snide, ever-shifting pop fit only for a cult audience.

What set The Monochrome Set apart from contemporaries is a sense of humor – not just in lead singer Bid’s droll, sarcastic wordplay, but in the rhythmic and melodic playfulness of the music itself.

While their sound apportioned its fair share of punk and new wave, The Monochrome Set’s better corollary might be a cabaret group jacked up on speed, with Bid as the playfully smarmy host, delivering one-liners over a chugging rhythm section.

Their debut album, Strange Boutique, kicks off with “The Monochrome Set (I Presume)”, a reference to British explorer David Livingstone, complete with tribal drums and jungle animal sounds underneath Lester Square’s squiggling guitar lines.

It’s a fitting introduction to the band’s sound: Square’s and Bid’s thin guitars intertwine and overlap with nary a power chord to be heard, Bid fits more rhyming syllables into vocal phrases than seems possible, and there’s a surprising shift into an instrumental break, all in melodic movements that sound like the soundtrack to a new wave Buster Keaton movie.

The Strange Boutique

The Monochrome Set (I Presume): Bid, Andy Warren, John Haney, Lester Square

The Monochrome Set (I Presume): Bid, Andy Warren, John Haney, Lester Square

In a 2008 interview with the label Cherry Red, Bid’s hindsight on The Monochrome Set’s commercial success (or lack thereof) is equal parts accepting and questioning.

He readily admits that they were silly to be crestfallen at the lack of success of either Strange Boutique or its follow up, Love Zombies, because neither effort contained marketable singles at a time when a single was what defined a band’s success. Later on, he notes – perhaps carefully – that ‘complex’ music was usually reserved for the likes of Yes, Genesis and their fans, and that new wave audiences were less accepting of it.

Asked if he begrudged Ant’s success at all, given their shared beginnings, Bid is dismissive. He talks instead about bassist Andy Warren, laughing out loud at the thought that Warren left the Ants and passed on joining Bow Wow Wow because he thought The Monochrome Set had a chance to surpass them both:

Andy [Warren] didn’t go with Bow Wow Wow for the reason that he didn’t want to dress up and look like a pratt… The music business has always been two businesses running side by side, and that’s commercialism and art. And you get extremes of both. And they’re not better or worse than each other, they’re just- you know – they’re different. If you’ve got a modicum of creative ability, you can be very very successful if you’re also ambitious and willing to suppress parts of yourself… And I wasn’t.”

Hmm… No marketable singles. Long, fluid guitar lines amidst unexpected key changes. A singer with an unmistakable talent for mellifluous rhyming, but an almost bored delivery. A band that earned much more credit after its time than during it. During a repeat listen to The Strange Boutique, something caught my ear and on a whim I Googled the words “The Smiths The Monochrome Set”, sure enough landing on this 2009 entry from the Guardian UK’s music blog:

Johnny Marr recalls first meeting Morrissey and flicking through his singles collection that Morrissey had whittled down to just 10 seven-inchs. Along with some girl groups and T-Rex, were the Monochrome Set. This must haveimpressed Marr, because they too were one of his favourite bands.”

Listening to tracks on the Strange Boutique like “The Lighter Side of Dating” and “Espresso”, you can almost see twenty-somethings Marr and Morrissey giggling along to them.

They weren’t alone. Among the British alt-rock royalty claiming The Monochrome Set as an influence are Blur’s Graham Coxon, Norman Cook aka Fatboy Slim (who recently covered the early Monocrhome Set single “He’s Frank” with Iggy Pop on vocals), and Franz Ferdiand frontman Alex Kapranos, who actually convinced Bid to produce a band he had played in earlier. Indeed, it seems you could substitute The Monochrome Set into the now famous misquote attributed to Brian Eno: “The Velvet Underground’s first album only sold a few thousand copies, but everyone who bought one formed a band.

Whether the comparisons to my own band were apt or not, my first listen to The Strange Boutique was revelatory in that it hit all the musical touchstones I was at least trying to go for. It had all the energy of punk, but forsook dumbed-down power chord progressions for intricate guitar counter-melodies. On the instrumental “The Puerto Rican Fence Climber”, the band almost dares you into boredom with its first ho-hum minutes, only to morph into the explosive jazz-punk band at your local bullfight during the second half.

These stark, mid-song, drop-of-a-hat changes in direction are commonplace throughout the album (“The Etcetera Stroll”, “Tomorrow Will Be Too Long”, “Martians Go Home”), but the band usually returns to center as easily as they left. One-time label mate OMD would never think to try something like this, ‘complex’ bands like Yes did it to the point of reflexivity; but The Monochrome Set had the creativity and the pop sensibility to jump from place to place while keeping the whole cohesive and intact.

And of course, there’s the humor. Far from being a transparent, lowest common denominator precursor to groups like the Bloodhound Gang, The Monochrome Set’s humor ranges from satire (Bid imagining himself as a middle-aged subject with a Lolita-esque lust on “Ici Les Enfants”) to Dadaist non-sequitirs, like the fade ups of an orchestral “You Only Live Twice” at the end of “Tomorrow Will Be Too Long” or what sounds like a carnival during sections of the guitar ballad “Goodbye Joe”. Somehow, they could be funny even without words. “The Puerto Rican Fence Climber” may not have any overt joke, or even lyrics, but the music makes it clear that the band never played at being serious – but was always serious about being playful.

In the end, Strange Boutique fits wonderfully into the pantheon of albums that were ignored and forgotten in their time, only to have later generations of fans like myself hear them and say: ‘Holy S*&%! This came out in (year long before I was born)?’

Unburdened by public expectation, The Monochrome Set has disbanded and reformed several times without fanfare, most recently in 2012, releasing their first studio album in 17 years, “Platinum Coils”.

To this day, you can pick any Monochrome Set song and you see their career arc within its edges: abrupt starts and stops, twisting, turning lines that intersect in perfect harmony for moments at a time, fluctuations between earnestness and frivolity, or sometimes both at once.

They are silly men making serious music or serious men making silly music – whichever your ear prefers.

Blake Madden is a musician and author who lives and works in Seattle, WA.

This entry was posted in All Stories, Featured Stories, February 2013, From The Vaults, Guest Posts. Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.
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